Women and Children Last: The Burning of the Emigrant Ship Cospatrick
Charles R Clark
University of Otago Press, $39.95,
ISBN 187737214 5
This is the world’s most immigrant society. Every single person living here is either an immigrant or descended from one who came here in the last 900 years. During our latest heroic immigration period, between 1861 and 1881, 556,156 immigrants are recorded as entering New Zealand. That’s almost certainly on the low side; quite a lot more people probably arrived without being recorded as immigrants.
It has often seemed to me that we make less of this fact historiographically than we might, in terms of who and why all these people left (mainly) Britain to come here in the 19th century, and what that has meant culturally since. And then, of course, there’s the bit in between – the journey itself.
The reasons for emigrating had to be highly compelling to induce people who in the normal course of their lives would not have moved more than about 20 kilometres from their birthplace, to cut ties with friends and family at a time when these constituted the only widespread social safety net, and to embark on a minimum three-month journey in crowded and uncomfortable circumstances, to a place of which they knew little if anything. It also cost a lot of money, and, on top of all that, was quite dangerous.
Sailing vessels were small, deaths from disease during the journey were not uncommon on immigrant ships, especially among small children, and vessels foundered in heavy seas, ran ashore, or were, on at least one attested occasion, rammed by an infuriated sperm whale.
When Samuel Plimsoll began agitating for a better deal for seamen in 1868, there was no legislation in force requiring a vessel to be seaworthy to put to sea, the Board of Trade calculated that at least half of those that did were rotten “coffin ships”, and, at a time when mining was widely recognised as the most dangerous land-based occupation, seven times as many seamen were being killed a year at sea by drowning or accident. The much vaunted Plimsoll Line was not enacted until 1876 and then, initially and incredibly, was a voluntary requirement left to the discretion of the vessel’s owners. According to social historian Ernest Turner, one such, with grim irony, painted the line on his funnel.
Immigrant ships, particularly to New Zealand and Australia, were better served than most. The length of the journey meant that fewer corners could be cut in ensuring safety, and the semi-official auspices under which emigration to this country took place meant there was at least a system of rudimentary inspections for health and safety. The governments of the day wanted their settlers to arrive in one piece, although that did not prevent a ship (the England in 1873) being cleared for sailing when it was perfectly clear from the subsequent enquiry that it was known to have smallpox on board. Forty cases of measles on another ship were barely considered worthy of note, even although four children died of it.
But the most dreaded of all 19th century seaborne disasters was fire at sea. Operators of whaling ships, which of necessity had to boil down blubber while afloat, went to extreme lengths to ensure that this did not start a fire, by comprehensive water jacketing, but this did not stop ships catching ablaze from time to time. All sailing vessels were inherently flammable and in this period carried large quantities of flammable material both as cargo and to serve the operations of the ship, including varnish, pitch, and coal to fire the water distillation plant.
Of the dozen or so serious recorded British maritime disasters of the 19th century, arguably the worst, certainly in terms of loss of life, was the burning of the Cospatrick. An immigrant ship bound for New Zealand, it was lost off the Cape of Good Hope on 18 November 1874, with the deaths of almost all of the nearly 500 people on board. A mere 30 or so got away in two lifeboats, one of which subsequently foundered, and the other had just four people alive on it when rescued 31 days later. One of these subsequently died of his privations. They had survived only by imbibing the body fluids of their dead comrades. Women and Children Last is an account of this disaster.
There was, of course, an enquiry. Part of the problem was the common one for 19th-century vessels – a paucity of lifeboats. There was no requirement during the first part of the century for ships to carry lifeboats at all. And when regulations came into force they were based, curiously, not on the number of people on board a vessel but on its tonnage.
This meant that immigrant ships never carried enough lifeboats for all the passengers, or even most of them. There was no requirement for lifeboat drills, the boats themselves were often scandalously unseaworthy, rusted into their davits, and in some cases stowed hull-up on deck or even below decks. In an emergency, many could not be launched, and there are accounts of vicious struggles to get into the boats, struggles in which women and children definitely did not come first, whatever the mythology.
A requirement to carry adequate numbers of lifeboats in seaworthy condition, well provisioned and easily launched, had to wait for the aftermath of the scandal of the Titanic in 1912. More usually, it was the crew who took to the boats and left the passengers to their fate. This seems to be been the case in large part with the Cospatrick.
How the fire came to break out in the first place was never satisfactorily explained, and if the three survivors knew or had an inkling, they never revealed what they knew. The general consensus was that someone in the crew had broached the stowage area where food and spirits were kept, and a carelessly handled candle had set something ablaze. From that point the fire spread with terrifying rapidity through a wooden cargo space with no bulkheads among flammable cargo, which included turpentine, solvents, and spirits.
Fire-fighting pumps proved useless, and those who could abandoned ship. The chief stevedore responsible for the stowage said subsequently, when pressed, that he agreed with the statement of another that the freight “could not be better arranged to burn and would have made a capital fire”. Amazingly, the shipping inspector had certified that the Cospatrick had nothing flammable on board; even more amazingly, he was right because the regulations did not include turpentine among its list of flammable goods.
One should not be too critical of crews who broke into storage areas looking for food and drink. Their lives were harsh and brutal, their pay pitiful, and the dangers many. That they sought solace where they could find it by draining off rum and other spirits should surprise nobody. Such breaking and entering was so endemic on the immigrant ships plying to New Zealand – one of the longer journeys – that Sir Julius Vogel, when our London Agent General, complained strongly about it on more than one occasion. That such looting did not lead directly to other disastrous fires of this sort is only to be wondered at.
It always seems to be the case that it takes a disaster such as that of the Cospatrick to concentrate the minds of the authorities on the need for safety and regulation, and it does not take long for their minds to wander to other more desirable matters, and the unsafe state of shipping seems to be a particular case in point. No doubt there are vessels from other registries calling on our coasts today which would not stand too vigorous an inspection, but any attempt to do so is invariably dismissed as the meddling of those who would unwarrantedly interfere with trade and business. Samuel Plimsoll, one glumly notes, was the subject of precisely the same strictures a century and a half ago.
This is why we need a book about the Cospatrick to keep us alert to the dangers others risk on our behalf, and to remind ourselves of the courage it took for our ancestors to take their chances and come here in the 19th century to find a new life.
Tony Simpson is a Wellington writer.